PART 1: Thomas Stephenson turns personal adversity into a long-term cause to help others
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series focused on a millennial entrepreneur who is committed to helping individuals trying to recover from traumatic events who don’t have the financial resources they need.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Many entrepreneurs have their day jobs and their night jobs, and the first one usually provides the financial wherewithal to pursue the second which is normally a profit-focused business. In the case of Thomas Stephenson of Franklin, his night job is a passionate cause, spurred on by his desire to help others less fortunate than himself.
We met the personable Middle Tennessee native through one of our PYA colleagues who told us Stephenson had a great story to share. She was clearly correct. It’s one of overcoming odds through sheer determination, but also an outcome that benefitted from opportunities that are not uniformly available to others.
Today, Stephenson’s entrepreneurial cause – a non-profit named TENNACITY – is not about making money, but rather about recruiting corporate and individual donors who want to join the effort to help others without the necessary financial resources recover from traumatic injuries in their lives.
The story starts in mid-December of 2014 when the athletic 21-year old was headed to Charlottesville, VA to meet his best friend. Just two semesters shy of graduating from Western Kentucky University, Stephenson was driving on the I-840 loop toward I-40 when he heard an explosion and spent the next 30 seconds in what he describes as a washing machine-type experience. His truck, which had been hit head-on by a driver headed the opposite direction, flipped a number of times before stopping.
Stephenson was pulled to safety just before the vehicle caught on fire due to a fuel line that burst.
“I initially thought everything was OK,” he told us during our recent interview. “When I tried to stand-up, I realized I was not OK.” In fact, Stephenson had a shattered spinal column, crushed feet and ankles, and a broken femur complemented with a broken sternum and clavicle.
“My left femur was sticking through my jeans and my left foot was turned 180 degrees,” he explained.
Suddenly, the healthy and very active triathlete was told by a surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center that his lumbar spine exploded as a result of the impact, the type of accident that not many people survive.
“I came very close to not being here,” Stephenson said. Christmas was spent at Vanderbilt – a month in all, then another month in rehab followed by three and one-half months in a wheelchair.
“I was alive and very grateful for that,” he acknowledged, but was dismayed to hear that he would never bike or run again and would walk with a noticeable limp. “That’s a tough message to hear when you are 21 years old.”
In Stephenson’s case, he required numerous physical therapy treatments, something that quickly outlasted the health coverage he had. Unlike many others in similar situations, his parents had the financial resources to pay for the much-needed therapy if he was to recover as fully as possible.
It is the reality of those who need and can pay for therapy versus those who need but cannot pay for it that is the basis of TENNACITY.
NEXT: The recovery and the determination that drive Stephenson.